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The headhunter who ‘earned’ his client a $2.8 million pay cut



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Peter Mathieson, the vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), shocked the city after announcing his resignation in February. He decided to leave two years before his contract expires to join Scotland’s prestigious Edinburgh University.

What’s more shocking is Mathieson took a huge pay cut – from HK$5.8 million a year to about HK$3 million a year.

Speculation has suggested the political complexity of the job was too much for him, forcing him to want out as soon as possible. But it will be difficult to prove he left because he no longer enjoyed working at HKU.

Mathieson said a headhunter approached him for the less lucrative Edinburgh University job. The more interesting story here is how the headhunter convinced him to move to a job with less pay.

Human Resources magazine spoke to a number of headhunters about this quirky pay cut situation regarding Mathieson.

Adam Johnston, managing director at Robert Half Hong Kong, pointed out that although money generally remains the main motivating factor for professionals to change jobs, it is not always the case.

“Some professionals can be convinced to change jobs even if they’re offered a lower salary,” he said.

“Sometimes the non-financial incentives, job content or career progression opportunities can be more rewarding than higher remuneration.

“Factors such as lifestyle benefits, more/different responsibilities, an attractive relocation, flexible working arrangements, lower/higher workload or less stakeholders to manage can be enough to attract someone to a lower paying job.”

Siddharth Suhas, regional director for Hudson Hong Kong and Guangzhou, explained that headhunters approaching an individual for a job opportunity that pays less arises typically over two things.

1. When a candidate has expressly indicated that other elements of a role/opportunity are of a higher priority to them besides salary. This is uncovered during the initial interactions with a candidate when a recruiter interviews the candidate and understands their background, skills and motivational drivers. This might be the case for Mathieson.

2. When a candidate indicates a keenness to move sectors/functions to change their career direction in its entirety. As a result of such a decision, very often the candidate doesn’t possess some skills/experience necessary for a new sector at the same level they might currently be at and they consider this a personal investment of time and learning to build their career in a new industry. This is not the case for Mathieson; he is already a highly respected figure in his sector.

“Other than these reasons, headhunters do not typically approach candidates for roles where there is a big variance in the offered package and what they currently receive,” Suhas said.

Nick Lambe, group managing director at Links International, said salary would obviously come into consideration when considering a job change. For most people, they would only consider positions that were significantly below their current compensation if other pull factors were there.

“For example, there might be long-term incentives with the new firm or a higher bonus potential. The position might be in a new industry that they are passionate about, or will give them exposure and experience they desire in their careers,” he said.

“But it is not a common practice to call candidates with the intention of getting them to take a job at a lower salary, as we want to create a win-win for both the candidate and client.”

Only Mathieson will know the exact reason why he decided to quit HKU, but all signs seem to point to it being unusual for a professional to take a new job with lower pay.

ALSO READ: CEOs are willing to take pay cuts to work for top brands

Photo/ 123RF

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